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Originally published Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 9:34 PM

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Seattle sinks floating-billboard idea

A Seattle entrepreneur's plan to tow floating billboards alongside the Highway 520 and I-90 bridges seems unlikely to meet city and state regulations, officials said Tuesday.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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Floating billboards are illegal on Seattle waterways, the city said Tuesday in response to an uproar over plans by an entrepreneur to sell ad space targeting floating-bridge drivers across Lake Washington.

The ban extends halfway across the lake, said Bryan Stevens, customer-service director for the Seattle Department of Planning and Development.

It would also apply to other areas such as Lake Union, under city shoreline regulations, he said.

This month Darran Bruce, owner of iAM Alternative Media in Seattle, had billboards towed on Lake Washington, as a test run to publicize his new business.

Bruce said he planned to sell billboard space for the Fourth of July and at Seafair, and on waterways including Lake Union.

The city is now taking a harder line than it did last week in response to news inquiries. When the law department reviewed matters Tuesday, it became clear the city has jurisdiction to ban the signs, Stevens said.

"Advertising signs are not allowed in any shoreline environment other than on (some) upland lots, so a location on the water is unlawful," wrote City Councilmember Richard Conlin, head of the city's land-use committee.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation points to the 1971 Scenic Vistas Act, meant to protect views and reduce driver distraction. It forbids signboards if they can be seen by motorists "of normal visual acuity." Exceptions are allowed in industrial and commercial zones with the permission of a landowner.

Unlike billboards planted in land, the iAM signs would be towed behind a boat at 3 mph.

Even if they aren't stationed near a bridge, they would pass bridges while crossing a lake, Bruce said.

Pat O'Leary, outdoor-advertising specialist for the state Department of Transportation, said moving signs are subject to the law, which encompasses "portable, temporary and permanent installations."

Bruce set off a controversy this month by bringing sample signs onto Lake Washington, where they would compete for eyeballs with the water ripples, Mount Rainier, wetlands and a few eagles.

A standard large billboard by iAM is 14 feet high by 36 feet long, at a posted rate of $3,000 for a one-day display. iAM also offers inflatable ads on land, ads on trucks, and small airships that fly over fans in sports arenas.

Bruce, 37, said he was born and raised in Seattle, and sees both beauty and opportunity on Lake Washington. Floating signs make up a mere "0000 point 1 percent" of commercial messages that reach the public, he said.

Bruce said Tuesday he called multiple agencies several weeks ago, but employees didn't raise red flags about bans on waterborne signs. He said he intends to apply to the state DOT.

Some residents would prefer the water be off-limits.

"It's ugly and will likely only get worse," said Ben Kesseler, of Kirkland, who was surprised to see the signs while canoeing off Foster Island on May 7, and complained to the state.

DOT spokespeople said they want to see what Bruce proposes in an application, before saying definitively whether or how he can advertise near highways.

Inflatable billboards appear on land or water elsewhere in the world, including 25 other states by Bruce's count. Boating companies, car dealers and politicians have inquired about ad buys here, he says.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom.

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